After exploring the Mayan ruins at Tulum and the nearby chaotic village of tourist shops our little group was treated to an acrobatic surprise. Taking place 30 metres in the air, the troupe is known as the Papantla Flyers, colourful dancers in the sky provided an exciting and vibrant display on an otherwise grey day.
The performance is known as the Danza de los Voladores (Dance of the Flyers). The Voladores draped in vibrant red and white climb a tall pole which represents the tree of life and then attached by a length of rope lower themselves towards the ground while revolving around the post. This is why it is also known as Palo Volador (Pole Flying). It is quite a spectacular display even on a dull day, 4 of the 5 performers providing a choreographed series of ritualised dance movements as they slowly descend towards the ground. The fifth team member remains on top of the pole also dancing while playing a bamboo flute known as a chirimía and an animal skin drum.
It is an ancient religious ceremony which dates back at least 1500 years and possibly to 600 BC. The descent of the 4 dancers lasts exactly 13 revolutions which represents the 52 year pre-Hispanic cosmic cycle. At the end of the cycle the sun is reborn and life begins once again. Legend reveals that it may have started during a period of severe drought, the gods withholding the rain as they felt the people were neglecting them. The ritual was introduced to appease these high maintenance deities in the hope that they would relent allowing rain to fall.
The ceremony was partially lost after the Conquest, Christian priests considering it a pagan ritual, the Mayans however succeeded in disguising them as games or holding them in secret in an attempt to retain their sacred traditions.
There are over 30 registered groups throughout Mexico and the ceremony was declared an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in an effort “to help the ritual survive and thrive in the modern world”.
Preparations are meticulous for both safety reasons and to retain the symbolism of the ritual. The colourful costumes are not merely for effect, the reds, whites and vibrant ribbons represent nature, triumph, the human spirit and cultural beliefs. Mirrors and flowers add to the vibrant spectacle but also signify life and fertility.
Apart from the initial moment when the performers launch themselves backwards from the small platform at the top of the pole the display is almost balletic in appearance. The Voladores defy gravity as they gradually descend towards the earth, each attached only by the single umbilical chord of safety performing their 13 revolution aerial ballet of life. On a day where the sun failed to shine the Papantla Flyers added some much needed colour.